Why I couldn’t get On the Road with Jack Kerouac – Book Review

On the Road had been on my to-be-read list for many years. Just the title itself is attractive, conjuring up images of my own experiences of the road, watching the world from behind a window. From childhood, every summer, my family and I drove from the UK, across Europe to our homeland in the Balkans. This yearly pilgrimage inspired a love of the road in me. From the unnerving flat lands of Belgium, past the gloriously dark forests of Germany at night, and the heavenly, looming peaks of Austria, I knew the road could bring untold mystery and opportunity. Ever since, I’m always happiest when going somewhere, starting a journey. So I think I projected my own experiences and desires onto what I thought that this book should be like, what it should be about.

When it arrived in my post box, I delved straight in.  And then I pretty much hit a brick wall.

In short, On The Road is the story of Sal Paradise, a struggling writer in New York (*sigh – they’re always struggling, and they’re always in bloody New York*) who yearns for the open road, the endless highway and finally takes the leap thanks to his generous (and in my mind, long suffering) grandma. Throughout the book Sal takes a number of journeys back and forth across America and finally, years later, taking a journey with his best friend (and prime idiot) Dean Moriarty through Mexico. This sounds like it could be great, right?

It’s not. First of all, it was difficult to get into. A few pages in and I’d started thinking about what was for dinner that day or, even worse, my to-do list at the office. The writing seemed disjointed, clunky. I appreciate that Kerouac’s writing style is intentionally like this, and is a post WW2 response to the conservative America of the war years . Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference but,  for me, the story just didn’t flow.

Next, I really took issue with the content. I had anticipated adventures, a rich plot, the stuff that bourbon and 1950s jazz are made of (and that’s what the blurb on my Penguin copy promises!)  But it was all a bit of an anti-climax. The first trip across America is pure boredom. Sal left New York City for this? Miserable hitch hikes with little food and no fun?  When he eventually hits San Francisco, Sal mulches around a bit with his idiotic friends. There are a few similar cross American trips like this in the book, back and forth, and I forget how many times Sal does it because they all blend into one. Sure, he and his friends go out, get wasted a lot, but they’re just drunk idiots. It’s not enlightening or paving a new lifestyle. They’re just grown men and women who never actually grew up. Yeah, I hate Sal’s friends.

The characters are all awful. I really didn’t like anyone.  I mean, there’s plenty of books I’ve read where the characters are despicable but interesting and likeable. Here, they’re all just annoying, self obsessed idiots who are totally hapless at life. They’re all terrible friends and worse parents. Each of them is infected with this horrendous attitude of being completely selfish, being capable of abandoning their child and wife to drive across the country to pick up an equally selfish friend to just drive about a bit more with no purpose whatsoever. And I’m really not criticising people who choose not to take root or settle down. I think it’s inspiring and brave to travel the world, live on the road, and in the right circumstances, take your children along for the ride. But these hapless idiots aren’t enviable world travellers, they’re just wasters.

Perhaps I’m missing the point? And there will be staunch defenders of the book. I don’t profess to know very much about Beat culture so maybe I would appreciate On the Road more if I learnt about it. But I wanted to be inspired here, wanted to taste that freedom, almost feel the wind in my hair as I went along for the ride. I think the problem is me. I think I wanted this to be travel writing, when really, it is a lifestyle guide for those wanting to break free from society’s constraints.  So maybe it is my fault, but I really wanted to learn about America, feel the  atmosphere of 1950s night life in NYC, jazz bars in New Orleans and the roars of the pacific by San Francisco. Instead, On the Road left me with my feet firmly on the ground and my imagination still very much in Northern England.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Book Review

Every few summers or so, I accidentally discover a book that takes over my life. This was one of those summers.

Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind dictated what I did with the first week of my annual pilgrimage to the Balkans. I suppose I’ve been back to the homeland so often now that, having explored everything I could as a child, I’m not actually missing much by basking on my balcony in the horrendous heat, ignoring everything around me. It’s a good job too, because that’s exactly what I did. I stole snippets of time between breakfast and family visits, I read at 3am when back from nights out with my friends, and  I even rejected a visit to an outdoor spa in order to have the house and the balconies to myself. (In my defence, I visited that very outdoor spa 9 years ago. That was the summer I discovered Dostoevsky. It was a super windy day, and a few pages of Crime and Punishment were ripped from my grasp and were sent gliding around the pool, attaching themselves to bodies sticky with sun cream. I was distraught.)

I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.

So this was a book club pick and one I didn’t expect too much from. This month’s theme was historical novels (I immediately thought I’d be stuck reading some horrific bodice ripper set in the boring old Tudor era). Luckily, the vote was won by this, a novel set in post civil war Spain, savaged by Franco’s rule and focusing on a boy who discovers a mysterious book in a forgotten library! Ideal summer reading! Still, I did think it might be a cheap thriller with a juicy plot but pretty rubbish writing.

How glad I was to be wrong!

This was exquisite. Zafon is a genius. The writing is delicious, the portrait of Barcelona, the shelves and shelves of books, the darkened alleys. It is over the top in parts, it is dark and twisted, it is so far away from normal life. It is stunning.  It is peopled by incredible characters – everyone in this story loves books! Actually, they love books to an unhealthy, life endangering extent.

Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it   and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

So here’s the plot. Our hero, Daniel, is a young boy, whose father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to pick any book and take it home. Daniel picks The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Julian Carax. As Daniel devours the book, he decides to look for more novels by Carax, only to find that Carax, and any trace of his other works, has long since disappeared. Daniel then uncovers a dangerous man, Lain Coubert, who also happens to be a character in Carax’s novel,  lurking in Barcelona’s shadows. Coubert stalks Daniel with the sole intention  finding all of Carax’s novels in order to burn them to ashes.

We then follow Daniel’s journey over his formative adolescent years;  we laugh with him as he befriends the wonderful Fermin Romero De Torres, we follow him as he falls in love with dangerous women, and we watch him get further entwined in the Carax mystery, at great personal cost. This is not a fast paced thriller, this is a slow, luxurious unravelling of a mystery through rich, indulgent language.

Most of us have the good or bad fortune of seeing our lives fall apart so slowly we barely notice.

There are so many stories within this novel. That of Daniel and his coming of age, the heart breaking tale of Julian and Penelope, Spain’s own Romeo and Juliet, and the darkness that lies behind Coubert’s fires.

If you are looking for a historical novel, or to learn more about the Spanish Civil War, this isn’t for you. I can’t really say that we learn much about it (other than it was a pretty rubbish time for Spain) or that it plays any larger role than allowing for the existence of the novel’s most unsavoury character, the despicable Inspector Fumero. But the novel is still Zafon’s love letter to Barcelona, and a romantic one at that.

But the greater love letter here is to books themselves. This is pure indulgence for book lovers, a novel peopled by characters who protect books, sell them, write them, burn them and devote their lives to them. I couldn’t have loved it more. I was imprisoned by it.

                There are worse prisons than words.